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AB Universities Suspend Relationship with China by Provincial Order

The government of Alberta ordered the four major Universities to suspend partnership pursuits with any individuals or organizations linked to the Chinese Government. The University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, The University of Lethbridge, and Athabasca University are ordered to discontinue any links to the Chinese Communist Party.

The AB government has based this decision on concerns of national security. The Canadian officials also cited the risk that university research can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to facilitate abuses of human rights.

Previously, U of A has been involved in collaborative scientific projects with China. UofA and Chinese institutions work together by transferring research in fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other strategic research that will help Canada be at the forefront of global technological advancements.

On May 20th, the four universities received a request by email from the Alberta Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides, to provide a report within 90 days detailing all agreements, research relationships, joint ventures, and institutional relationships currently ongoing with the Chinese Government and CCP (Chinese Communist Party). Universities are expected to produce this report, which is to include details on the scope and scale of all ties to Chinese companies, institutions, and agencies and any implications of withdrawing from these ties.

The email included: “Among Canada’s allies, serious concerns have been raised regarding university partnerships with entities and/or individuals linked to the People’s Republic of China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Alberta, with our world-class institutions, is not immune to foreign exploitation.”

According to a study by the Australian Strategy Policy Institute, Canada comes in third for the country with the most scientists affiliated with the Chinese military. Nicolaides’ email also stated that the province’s universities could be used “to forward the aims of the People’s Republic of China’s [PRC] military and security apparatus. Research originating in Alberta’s taxpayer-funded postsecondary institutions could be used to undermine Canada and her democratic allies and to facilitate the People’s Republic of China’s human-rights abuses at home against its citizens.”

The Alberta Government’s concerns follow worries over China’s advancing technological research facilities and institutions - what Richard Fisher at the Asian Affairs Dept. of the International Assessment and Strategy Centre in the US calls a global “intelligence vacuum cleaner.” The US government has also flagged collaborative projects between AB’s university research centers and China as a concern.

Global Technology expert, Elsa Kania writes that western universities are not always aware of the issue of the research transferring phenomenon. Helping rival military organizations develop expertise in technology isn’t in the national interest.

Ottawa, under the direction of Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, is currently working on developing new risk guidelines for national-security considerations in the evaluation and funding of university research projects. New guidelines would not prevent Canadian researchers from relying on foreign funds to finance their work but would discourage it.

The Alberta Minister also clarified that the intention is not to sever relationships with valuable global research altogether, which is a large part of AB’s university programs: “I do want to make very clear I am in no way suggesting that individuals of certain nationalities or ethnicities are somehow to be viewed as threats … to the contrary, many individuals or their families came to Canada specifically to escape the oppressive regimes of their homelands.”

Many AB officials are in agreement with the re-evaluation of research ties, but also think the Minister needs to be more specific with the request. Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, an International Relations specialist for several Canadian universities, believes there should be an accessible list of the 160 Chinese labs associated with the Chinese military that Canadian universities can use as a reference for collaborations.

On Sunday, the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary stated that they are currently reviewing the Minister’s email request.

What do you think? Ending ties with foreign research institutions: cautious and sensible approach to Canadian national security, or stunting local development, innovation, and necessary funding?

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